World of Opera

Simple Feelings, Powerful Drama: Puccini's 'La Boheme'

Friday, March 16, 2012
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Puccini's La Boheme in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

"A scene from "Puccini's La Boheme"
(Courtesy of Maggio Musicale)
Carmela Remigio (soprano) ... Mimi
Achiles Machado (tenor) … Rodolfo
Alessandra Antonucci (soprano)… Musetta
Stefano Antonucci (baritone) … Marcello
Simone Del Savio (baritone) ... Schaunard
Marco Vinco (bass) … Colline
Andrea Cortese (bass) ... Benoit/Alcindoro

Maggio Musicale Orchestra and Chorus
Carlo Montanaro, conductor
For a long time -- centuries, actually -- opera was dominated by larger-than-life characters: kings and queens, gods and goddesses, mythic figures with power over life and death. The challenge for composers and librettists was to give these legendary characters common feelings -- to put little sorrows in great souls -- so the ordinary humans who bought opera tickets could identify with the on stage dramas.

But as opera became a more and more popular form of entertainment, that changed. Composers turned to stories about simpler, more realistic characters, creating a whole new set of challenges in the process -- and nobody new that better than Giacomo Puccini.

Puccini once said that his success came from putting "great sorrows in little souls." His operas tell us that at some point in their lives, people everywhere, in all walks of life, endure the same trials: love and envy, loss and heartbreak. That's especially true in La Boheme, a story set among struggling artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Boheme is a drama of everyday events and common people. The characters are familiar, maybe even routine. The same is true of many other Puccini operas, which is one reason the composer has always had his detractors. Certain critics have analyzed Puccini's music, and his stories, and concluded that his operas are too easily enjoyable -- and maybe not intellectual enough to justify Puccini's great success. And it would be easy to argue that composers such as Mozart, Verdi and Wagner all produced operas far more complex and innovative than Puccini's -- great operas that work on so many levels that they both invite analysis, and defy it. By comparison, some say, Puccini's dramas seem overly simple and straightforward.

But that conclusion itself may also be too simple. Regardless of his methods, Puccini mastered the unique and mystifying synthesis of music, drama and stagecraft that only opera can deliver, and with powerful results. His enduring, popular dramas are graced by appealing and believable characters whose feelings are portrayed so deeply and so vividly that, as we look on, their emotions soon become ours as well, and their heartbreaks seem as wrenching as our own.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Puccini's La Boheme in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy. The stars are soprano Carmela Remigio and tenor Achiles Machado as the lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, in a performance led by conductor Carlo Montanaro.

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From Russia with Love -- and Laughs: Glinka's 'Ruslan and Lyudmila'

Friday, March 2, 2012
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila from one of Russia's most historic musical venues, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

A scene from Glinka's 'Ruslan and Lyudmila (Courtesy of the Bolshoi Theatre)
Albina Shagimuratova (soprano) ……………… Lyudmila
Mikhail Petrenko (bass) ………………………….. Ruslan
Vladimir Ognovenko (bass) …………………….. Svetozar
Yuri Minenko (countertenor) ... Ratmir
Almas Shvilpa (bass) … Farlaf
Alexandrina Pendachanska (soprano)… Gorislava
Charles Workman (tenor) … Finn/Bayan
Elena Zaremba (mezzo-soprano)... Naina

Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
What do you think of when someone mentions Russian opera? Most likely, it's something somber and dark, and with good reason. The most famous of Russian operas include Mussorgsky's grim historical epic Boris Godunov, along with Tchaikovsky's pair of bleak psychodramas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, operas with an epic quality of their own.

And those three popular dramas have something particular in common with plenty of other Russian operas. All three are based on works by Alexander Pushkin -- not most people's idea of leisurely reading. Yet there is one great Russian opera, also inspired by Pushkin, that occupies a far lighter region of the dramatic spectrum.

Mikhail Glinka is often credited as the founder of the Russian opera tradition. Ruslan and Lyudmila was Glinka's second opera, and also his last. It appeared in 1842, after six years in the making, and it is based on a Pushkin epic. But this one might well be called an epic frolic -- a lush yet lighthearted romp through a world of fantastic adventures and fairytale love. The story sweeps its way across the vast Russian landscape, depicting a furious conflict between good and evil. But when it all shakes out, this epic features far more fun than furor.

Glinka’s opera follows Pushkin's original fairly closely -- the whole plot is there, and then some. The opera may come up short of fully capturing the poem’s astonishing dramatic flow, but that would have been a tall order. Pushkin's epic is a real page turner, with disparate elements of the story tumbling over each other at a breakneck pace. The opera is more a series of related set pieces, and it probably didn’t help that the scenario was reportedly devised, by a buddy of Glinka’s, "in a quarter of an hour while he was drunk." Yet Glinka’s musical contribution is beautiful throughout, conjuring lively characters and vivid theatrical images, even when the action itself occasionally slows to a trot.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Ruslan and Lyudmila from one of Russia's most historic musical venues, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Soprano Albina Shagimuratova and bass Mikhail Petrenko star in the title roles, in a production led by conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

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Bitter Immortality: Janacek's 'Makropulos Case'

Friday, February 17, 2012
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Janacek's The Makropulos Case from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

A scene from Janacek's 'The Makropulos Case' (Courtesy of Maggio Musicale)
Angela Denoke (soprano) … Emilia Marty
Miro Dvorsky (tenor) ... Albert Gregor
Andrzej Dobber (baritone) ... Jaroslav Prus
Jolana Fogasova (soprano) ... Kristina
Karl Michael Ebner (tenor).Count Hauk-Šendorf
Rolf Haunstein (bass-baritone) … Dr. Kolenaty
Mirko Guadagnini (tenor) … Janek
Jan Vacik (tenor) …Vitek

Maggio Musicale Orchestra and Chorus
Zubin Mehta, conductor
In the popular title song of the 1980 movie hit Fame, the refrain begins with a brash declaration: "I'm gonna live forever." At first, that may sound like simple, youthful ambition -- a vow to exceed all expectations. But it might also serve as a warning, about the price that's paid when success outlives the exuberance that spawned it, and the joy it once provided.

The movie, along with its stage and TV spinoffs, and a 2009 remake, tells the story of a group of talented youngsters fighting to make the grade at a prestigious school for the performing arts. Along the way, it poses complex questions about what they're willing to sacrifice for a fame that lasts forever: Friendship? Loyalty? Honor? Love?

Similar questions arise from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The title character in that famous novel is so devoted to selfless pleasure that to sustain it, he makes a Faustian bargain. As a result, he stays young forever, while only his portrait reflects the damage his unprincipled life does to his soul -- damage he doesn't see until it's too late.

That same theme, questioning the price of immortality, drives Leos Janacek's grim thriller The Makropulos Case. Emilia Marty, the opera's main character, is a world-famous singer -- 337 years old, and just beginning to feel her age! She's determined to keep on living no matter what, or whom, she has to give up in the process. By the time her story ends, Emilia's ruthless scheming has led her to the secret formula for an even longer life. Yet she decides to give it up -- and ultimately wonders if her astounding longevity has been worth even part of the joy she abandoned to achieve it.

Janacek himself knew a little something about long life, and the combination of pleasure and frustration it can sometimes bring. His greatest success didn't come until after a production of his opera Jenufa made him famous when he was 62. Many of his greatest works were composed when he was past 70 -- and a number of them, including The Makropulos Case, were inspired by his passion for a woman half his age, who never returned his feelings.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Janacek's The Makropulos Case from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, with soprano Angela Denoke as Emilia, tenor Miro Dvorsky as Gregor, one of many men who fall under her spell, and soprano Jolana Fogasova as Kristina, an ambitious young performer who idolizes Emilia until the bitter truth of her long life is finally revealed. The production is led by conductor Zubin Mehta.

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Elly Ameling at Tanglewood

Friday, February 10, 2012
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The Start of Something Big

Friday, February 10, 2012
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Host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Oberto in a production from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.

Giuseppe Verdi (by Giovanni Boldini, 1886, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome; via Wikimedia Commons)
Michele Pertusi (bass-baritone)..Oberto
Maria Guleghina (soprano) .. Leonora
Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano)..Cuniza
Vater Borin (tenor) .. Riccardo
Sophie Pondjiclis (mezzo-soprano) .. Imelda

National Orchestra of France
Radio France Chorus
Carlo Rizzi, conductor
There's an old saying that, "The third time's the charm," and while it may seem like an arbitrary observation, there are at least three, great theatrical careers that appear to bear it out.

In 1971, George Lucas made his directorial debut with the science fiction thriller THX 1138. It was pretty much overlooked at the time. But when his third feature, Star Wars, became a sci-fi sensation, movie lovers began giving Lucas's first film a second chance. By now, many see it as an indicator of Lucas's future brilliance.

In the same year, Steven Spielberg directed his first feature film, the full-length TV movie Duel. It didn't get much attention. But, like Lucas, Spielberg became a star two movies later, with Jaws. After that, Duel gained newfound acclaim as the work of a budding genius.

 Another artist who made it big with his third effort began his career about 130 years earlier.  Giuseppe Verdi's third opera, Nabucco, premiered in 1842, and was an instant hit. Before long, the opera's famous chorus "Va, pensiero" had become a sort of unofficial national anthem, and it's still one of Verdi's most popular numbers today.

But Verdi's first opera was another story. It's called Oberto, and though it premiered at a top-notch venue, Milan's La Scala, it was only a modest success. It wasn't until Nabucco put Verdi on the map that audiences began seeing Oberto as a sign of great things to come.

When Verdi's Oberto debuted in Milan, in 1839, the composer was 26, and the opera had already been in progress for about four years. During that time, Verdi worked with a couple of different librettists, and the story was moved from 17th-century England to 13th-century Italy.

The process was frustrating for all concerned, but it gave Verdi plenty of chances to show off his music to opera's movers and shakers. One of them was the impresario who arranged for the premiere at La Scala. Another was the publisher Ricordi, who had a fruitful relationship with Verdi for many years to come -- an arrangement that made them both a small fortune. And though it did take two more operas before Verdi's career truly got off the mark, Oberto -- despite a somewhat creaky plotline -- does display many of the musical elements that played an ongoing role in sustaining one of opera's greatest careers.

On WORLD OF OPERA, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Oberto in a production from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris. Bass-baritone Michele Pertusi gives a stirring performance in the title role, with soprano Maria Guleghina as his troubled young daughter, Leonora, in a production led by conductor Carlo Rizzi.

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Boston Baroque's Les Indes Galantes

Friday, September 2, 2011
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Hear Boston Baroque in Rameau's Les Indes Galantes

Click on "Listen" above.  Download program information and see a slideshow from the production below.

In May of 2011, Boston Baroque and music director Martin Pearlman (left), capped off their 38th season with a production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Les Indes Galantes at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall.  Not exactly opera as we think of that term now, but rather an extravagent bringing-together of music, drama, and dance particular to its time, Les Indes Galantes includes lyrical music-making, spectacular tableaux, and infectious, toe-tapping dance.

The prologue sets things in motion: Hébé, goddess of youth, laments seeing the young men of Europe lured by the goddess of war’s promises of glory, and asks Cupid to go abroad, to exotic, faraway lands (“les Indes”), in search of love.

There follow four acts, each a self-contained love story: Le Turc généreux (The Generous Turk), Les Incas du Pérou (The Incas of Peru), Les Fleurs – fête Persane (The Flowers – Persian Festival), and Les Sauvages d’Amerique (The Savages of America). The libretto and music reflect Parisian society’s fascination with the New World and the Near East. For example, two Native Americans from French colonial Louisiana were brought to Paris in 1725 and performed, inspiring Rameau to write a set of harpsichord pieces called Les Sauvages, some of which he adapted here.

Tune in to Classical New England on 99.5 WCRB in Boston or 88.7 WJMF in Providence, or stream the performance here at at 6:30pm on Sunday, Nov. 18. The cast includes sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Nathalie Paulin, tenors Aaron Sheehan and Daniel Auchincloss, and baritones Sumner Thompson and Nathaniel Watson.

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